So what is a surname?
A surname is a hereditary name common to all members of a family. It’s also known as last name and family name.
So does everyone have a surname? No
Yes, not everyone has a last name. Some people have only one name, they are known as mononymous — people who are known and addressed by a mononym, or a “single name”. Before colonization, westernization and globalization, a lot of people were mononymous. Mononymous names are still existent and common in Indonesia, Iceland, South India and Malaysia. Surnames were only introduced after World War I in Turkey by their first president as part of his plan to westernize and modernize the country. Most countries actually have laws requiring citizens and residents within their jurisdiction to have a surname. So if you believe surnames to be innate, well they are not. They are simply another human construct.
So when did surnames begin?
Surnames began in various regions of the world at different times. In England they began as a way to prevent confusion when referring to people. In the early years of the middle age, people lived in small communities, and as these communities began to expand so did a need for differentiating between people who shared the same name. You heard a name like “John Smith” and instantly knew it was referring to John who is a black smith, not John Baker the baker. So yeah, surnames weren’t that big a deal when they began, and were more descriptive than a cultural or legal necessity. As time went on, it became a norm, and norms aren’t exempt from human biases. In this case, the gender bias and surname norm came together in holy matrimony.
But a woman taking a man’s last name is universal
Nope, it isn’t. Here are a couple of countries/regions where a woman doesn’t have to take her husband’s last name
Greece: In 1983, Greece adopted a new marriage law which guarantees gender equality between spouses. This means women in Greece are required to keep their birth names for their whole life.
Italy: Spouses keep their original surnames in Italy. A married woman gets to keep her surname with the option of adding her husband’s name after hers.
Netherlands: Persons who have been married in the Netherlands or entered into a registered partnership remain registered under their birth name. They are, however, permitted to use their partner’s last name for social purposes or join both names.
Spanish Speaking Regions: In the Spanish speaking regions of the world, spouses keep their original surnames as it is considered impolite towards her family for a woman to change her name. Some women do choose to observe the old Spanish custom of conjoining “de” and her husband’s paternal surname to her own name.
China: In modern mainland China, it is normal for a married woman to keep her name unchanged. She doesn’t have to adopt her husband’s surname.
Korea: Traditionally, Korean women keep their family names after marriage.
Québec: The law in Québec permits neither spouse to change surnames since a 1981 reform of the civil law, meaning women are not permitted to adopt their husband’s name at marriage, not even if they apply for an official name change.
So what about children?
As with practices requiring last names, there’s not one ubiquitous format for this. There are different systems, in some countries, Korea for example, the child by default inherits the man’s last name. In others, both couples decide on whose last name or both last name for the child. For example, in Spain, people have two last names from both spouses. Hence a child would bear both of her or his parents first surnames. Both parents also decide what the child’s first surname will be.
So what if men took their wives last names?
The world wouldn’t end, and they would have a marriage as boring, exciting or dramatic as any other family. However, the men will realize something , which is — it’s not so easy changing one’s name. Not just because he will understand changing ones name isn’t such a seamless act, but also because he would experience how patriarchy can negatively affect men. A man trying to change his surname to his wife’s would have to pay a court fee, publicize his name change as a news paper ad for weeks, go to court for a judge’s approval, change his name on his bank cards and important documents like his passport and drivers incense. While the name changing process for a newly wedded woman is relatively expedited, there can be inhibitions impeding a newly wedded man from making that same decision. For example, in the United States,
Only eight states have an official name change for a man as part of their marriage process; others can petition a court, or where not prohibited, use the common law method (though government agencies sometimes do not recognize this procedure for men).
Basically, it’s a more arduous task if you’re a man. Doubt that? Here’s Buday, a guy who found out just how difficult it was changing his last name to his wife’s.
So what do you think about the negative reactions to Zoe Saldana’s husband taking her last name ?
Only simple minded individuals react negatively to decisions of others that don’t negatively affect them or anyone. Actions that deviates from a norm or tradition are always met with resistance, the reactions are more pronounced when the norm is infused with a societal bias — in this case, a bias based on gender. This bias is — of course — laced with the misogynistic idea that the loss or adoption of a last name is a woman’s responsibility or role as the subservient sex.
Anything counter to this is predictably seen as deviant and must be attacked. It’s not a surprise that an action that goes counter to a general norm is perceived in that manner. According to labeling theory, gender influences how we define deviance because people commonly use different standards to judge the behavior of females and males. What this means is that an identical action will illicit a different reaction simply based on its actors having different organs between their legs. Silly, right?
Ultimately, surname adoption is a choice everyone should have the liberty to make for themselves. It should be a woman’s decision to keep her last name or adopt her husband’s last name, neither of these choices make a woman more or less of a feminist or a woman. It should also be a man’s decision to adopt his wife’s last name . This doesn’t make him any less of a man, but more of a human as it takes a tough person to voluntarily give up part of their identity — something women have a head start at. The universal response to social situations — like this — should be what Marco(Zoe’s husband) said when Zoe tried to talk him out of taking her last name, in concern he would be emasculated by the world for it . He simply replied
“Ah Zoe, I don’t give a s–t.”